For many years, the games industry — especially the PC market — has taken advantage of what is known as “beta testing.” Traditionally, a beta test referred to the testing of an advanced stage in a game’s development, when it was close to completion with the major bugs and glitches resolved. However, recently it seems to refer to the distribution of games software to private individuals so they can test the game in the comfort of their own homes. The idea is that when a game is in beta, the major kinks have already been ironed out, with the beta being strictly used to find the last small bugs and minor glitches that may have slipped past the quality assurance (QA) test. Beta tests tend to be released late in a game’s development, meaning developers can’t make any serious changes before the game’s release. The most common bugs include collision issues, text problems, artificial intelligence acting incorrectly or sound ques misbehaving or missing. Beta testing can be used as a harmless, cost efficient way to not only reward certain people by allowing them access to games early, but help studios cut cost in QA tests and get players a more active role in supporting the development teams and studios they’ve come to enjoy. Beta testing is nothing new, however it seems more companies have been implementing them for seemingly nefarious reasons, using the “beta” moniker to hide behind unfinished games and to use it as an excuse to never quite finish them.
Take for example, Red Dead Online. Releasing November 27th, 2018, a full month after the game’s single player release, this online mode allows you to “posse up” with your friends and traverse the massive landscape of Red Dead Redemption II, completing missions, hunting and skinning animals, and hunting other players. Upon its release, there was a curious “beta” tag left underneath the title screen, causing confusion and speculation. While it’s probable that Rockstar were trying to work out some of the remaining issues of the online (which was ridiculously buggy on launch) many speculated that the real reason for the online being in beta was to allow Rockstar to drag their feet on making any improvements, citing the service being in beta as the reason why. Red Dead Online was seen as troublesome on launch, with many reviews calling it “boring, lifeless, and greedy.” It wasn’t until May of this year that Read Dead Online was officially out of beta, a result of that being a much more playable, less buggy, and more interesting game. It still has its issues, but it is far more playable than it was upon release.
Rockstar’s decision is not a rare one. Another, arguable more egregious example of beta testing for the wrong reasons is the infamous Fallout 76. For those of you who don’t know, Fallout 76 is Bethesda Studio’s first attempt at a multiplayer role playing game. Bethesda is already known for their buggy games, but 76 took it to another level, being largely unplayable at launch. A laundry list of bugs, glitches, crashes, and game breaking instances were logged as the game launched. Many of these were confirmed by the developer, and at time of writing many of them still persist. Bethesda promised a beta before the game’s release — standard practice — but the beta was released only three and a half weeks before the game hit store shelves. That isn’t enough time to make any substantial changes, even with the implementation of patches. Bethesda even called the beta a “Break-It-Early Test Application,” and break it did. The beta was seen as a bit of a mess, with chugging frame rates and animation issues, even on the Xbox One X. This, understandably, worried players, as there was less than a month after the beta released before the players would spend $60 to dive into the world. As it turns out, less than a month really wasn’t enough time for Bethesda to fix the issues, and the game launched with many of the same problems that plagued the beta. Because of this, the beta seemed unnecessary since the issues persevered.
Despite being exploitative for AAA companies, beta testing has its place. Indie companies need beta testing to finish a game on multiple fronts. Beta tests are necessary for small developers to make sure their games are playable, as well as get feedback from their players. This allows developers to decide what they should subtract from their games, and what they should add into it. Indie developers are more inclined to listen to their player feedback in their beta period, and make changes accordingly. Indie betas also serve as free promotion for their games. If their game was lucky enough to garner the eye of the press, putting a beta in peoples’ hands typically adds to the hype, especially if it’s given to streamers or “influencers.” If, by chance, the game has not caught the pubic or press’s attention, a beta has the ability to help generate some buzz around a title’s release. An example of beta testing done right is gaming Goliath Minecraft, which entered beta on December 20th, 2010. Minecraft stayed in beta for nearly eleven months, having the official 1.0.0 release on September 22nd, 2011, officially ending its beta in November of that year. The beta was substantially cheaper than the fully released game, and allowed players to give Mojang (Minecraft’s developers) feedback on what aspects of the game worked, which ones didn’t, and where the bugs needed to be addressed. To date, Minecraft has sold an incredible 176 million copies, making it the best selling video game of all time.
Because of this, beta testing is crucial in the completion of games from developers who lack the financial backing of a large investor. On the contrary, AAA companies — who by definition are financially viable — seem to be conflating “beta” with “demo,” as the majority of their betas release after the window of opportunity to make any changes within their games. They also tend to hide the betas behind preorder bonuses or other paywalls, such as Fallout 76. Essentially, companies are releasing games a few days early for those who are preordering, with seemingly little interest in altering the final product based on the feedback of those early releases. Hopefully this won’t have a major impact on smaller studios looking only to reward their player base and better their game, and will instead urge larger developers to become more transparent about their motives. For now, however, betas are going strong in the AAA market, and they show no signs of slowing down.
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